Frontier Women Make Their Own History
The history of the West is peppered with stories and lore of brave men and soldiers who were dispatched to forts and outposts at the wild edges of Wyoming’s rugged terrain as they fought courageously to fend off encroachments and settle the untamed West.
In the back pages of this history are the women, who lived on the military outposts among these soldiers and men. Often accompanying their officer husbands, or often commissioned to provide the services that fueled life on the posts, these women were largely left on their own to rely on their own wits and resources for survival.
As military wives, they held no status within the U.S. Army. Consequently, upon the death of their spouse, which was common, they were evicted from the officer’s quarters with all resources cut off. Their choice was to re-marry or find a life of their own.
What follows are some of their stories, courtesy the Frontier Military Gallery at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in Buffalo, where the collection is currently on display.
Frances Grummond Carrington
Perhaps most famously among military spouses is Frances Grummond Carrington, who arrived in Johnson County in the fall of 1866 when her husband was transferred to join the Eighteenth Infantry at Fort Phil Kearny.
Her husband, Lt. George Grummond, was sent to Wyoming as punishment for being court marshalled in 1864 for a series of offenses, including pistol-whipping a sergeant, brutally beating a private, threatening to shoot a junior officer, and shooting an unarmed civilian. In lieu of losing his position, the hothead was publicly reprimanded and sent to the far reaches of Wyoming.
By the time Grummond was ultimately killed in the Fetterman Fight, Frances was five months pregnant.
Like other military wives of fallen soldiers, Frances was asked to leave the officer’s quarters with no means by which to begin her new civilian life. Feeling sorry for Frances’ predicament, Colonel Carrington and his wife took her into their home until they left together for Fort Caspar.
Frances ultimately headed back home to Tennessee to bury her husband. She was met by her brother William at Bridger’s Ferry, who accompanied her the rest of the way.
Upon her arrival in Tennessee, she received another surprise. A woman named Delia Elizabeth Grummond was waiting to claim the body and the pension of Lt. Grummond.
It was then that Frances discovered that her late husband was a liar and bigamist, who not only had a second wife but two children from this marriage.
As it turned out, his first wife had sued for divorce in 1865 on the grounds of neglect and abandonment, resulting in the court ordering payment of $2,000 in alimony. Although his divorce was not final until three weeks after his marriage to Frances, the government determined his second wife to be his legal spouse at the time of his death. Therefore, Frances was able to draw his pension and bury his body. Her son William was born in April 1867.
In 1870, when Frances learned of Margaret Carrington’s death, she sent her condolences to Colonel Carrington and a correspondence courtship ensued. The pair eventually married in 1871, and shortly thereafter, her new officer husband adopted her son and together they had three more children.
Margaret compiled her memoirs “My Army Life and the Fort Kearny Massacre” when she was in her early 60s. Less than five years later, she died at the age of 66. A year later, her husband died at the age of 88.
Juliet Watson Hart
There are holes in Juliet’s biography and little is known about her early life prior to moving to northeastern Wyoming. Other than her birthdate and hometown – 1848, Indiana – she arrived to Fort Laramie in 1880 with her military husband and three children, all of whom were born in different states – Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
Such was the nomadic life of an Army spouse. After traversing the country with her military husband and post commander, Major Verling K. Hart, the two arrived at Fort McKinney in the late 1800s.
In spite of her earlier apparently uneventful life, Juliet had an enormous impact on the early years of the city of Buffalo after her husband’s death.
While serving as post commander, the Major had been granted ownership of 629 acres of land adjacent to the Fort, which she inherited upon his death.
She would soon learn that the land was home to approximately 800 inadvertent squatters, including residents and businesses forming a small community. Informing them that they were illegally occupying her land caused bad blood between her and her occupants, though eventually an agreement was reached.
Or so they thought.
For $10 a lot, Juliet tentatively agreed the citizens could purchase the land, though in the end, she apparently went back on her promise. Records show about 250 land sales to early Buffalo settlers, but controversy as to who actually owned the land continued through the second half of the 1880s.
Like other controversial figures, Juliet did not stick around town. In 1900, she moved to Washington, D.C. with her son-in-law, Charles W. Taylor, and the date of her death remains unknown.
Margaret Sullivant Carrington
Born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1831 to a prosperous and well-connected family, Margaret grew up a highly educated woman, who married Colonel Henry Carrington in 1851, and eventually accompanied him to Fort Phil Kearny.
Of the couple’s six children, only one survived to adulthood. The rest presumably died of tuberculous, of which the Colonel was thought to have been an unaffected carrier who passed the disease along to his family.
A prolific writer and scholar, Margaret recorded the many details of life on a military outpost and documented the area flora and fauna in her journal. She also wrote about her encounters with the local Indians and had a deep sympathy for their struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. Much of what is known today about Fort Phil Kearny is based upon these early writings.
During her year at the post, Margaret also befriended Jim Bridger and spent many evenings reading Shakespeare and other popular books to him.
She was a frequent chronicler of their lives and travels. When Colonel Carrington was transferred to Fort Caspar in January of 1867, the temperature was so cold that the mercury congealed in the bulb at -40 degrees, as noted in Margaret’s journal. After Fort Caspar, the couple continued to Fort McPherson in Nebraska where the Colonel was post commander.
Margaret was her husband’s biggest fan and supporter, and openly defended his actions surrounding the controversial Fetterman Fight. After he left military service in 1870, the Colonel took a teaching position at Wabash College in Indiana.
Within that same year, like the couple’s five children, 39-year-old Margaret also died of tuberculosis.
One of the more controversial figures of local military lore is Susan Fitzgerald, who unlike most of the women taking up residence at frontier posts was not an officer’s wife nor married to a troop member. Instead, the African-American woman was brought to Fort McKinney in 1866 as a servant to Captain Tenodor Ten Eyck and his wife.
As one of only two unmarried women and servants at the post, Susan proved to be a controversial figure during her stay.
At a time when existence for any single woman, much less a black one, was incredibly difficult, Susan, a budding entrepreneur, decided to open up her own operation, filling a niche that wasn’t entirely legal.
In addition to her duties as a servant and laundress, Susan opened the door for new opportunities, providing some of the sought-over commodities not typically found on the frontier – whiskey, fruit pies, and sausages – all made from government rations.
It wouldn’t take long for her questionable use of government property to catch the eye of authorities. She was officially reprimanded for her activities in fall of 1866, her citation stating in part, “This woman, profane, abusive, and of bad repute before her arrival must observe better behavior or she will not be tolerated in the garrison.”
Less than a year later, she headed to Fort Fetterman with the Ten Eycks, and ultimately followed them to Chicago where she would forever disappear into the back pages of history.
Johnson County’s Longest-standing Military Fort
As the longest-standing outpost in Johnson County, Fort McKinney functioned mainly to discourage off-reservation travel by Native Americans and protect nearby civilians from the ensuing skirmishes. Originally built in 1876 along the Powder River, Fort McKinney was moved to the base of the Big Horn Mountains two years later for its spectacular views and access to natural resources.
Back then, along with being involved in several engagements with the Native Americans, including Wounded Knee in 1890, post personnel were also unwittingly involved in the arrest of the Johnson County Cattle War invaders in 1892.
During its first 16 years, Fort McKinney
was instrumental in the development of modern-day Buffalo as it offered jobs and markets. The Fort was eventually taken over by the state in 1895, when it became the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in 1903, and later, the Veterans Home of Wyoming.
Unearthing History: Scrapbook Exhibit
Lee Wilson was rooting around in the archives at Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas State University in Lawrence when he came upon an interesting discovery. The retired veterinarian and avid history buff caught a glimpse of a weathered leather scrapbook.
Most likely taken by a photographer commissioned by the U.S. government, the scrapbook contained dozens of sepia prints of an indeterminate date that captured the daily life of soldiers and personnel at Ft. McKinney with candid shots of drills and weekend outings in the nearby Big Horn Mountains.
Intrigued with his discovery, Wilson contacted Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum Director Sylvia Bruner, who worked with the curator at Kansas State to procure copies, which are currently on display at the museum.
Jim Gatchell Museum Hours & Address
Museum hours are subject to change per season.
Winter Hours: Sept. 4 through late May
Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Location: 100 Fort Street, Buffalo, WY 82834
By: Jen C. Kocher with research provided by museum
Photos Courtesy the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.